Interview: James Swallow, Author of FEAR TO TREAD

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James Swallow has written stories for franchises as diverse as Doctor Who, Warhammer 40,000Stargate and much more. He’s also written the story for games such as Fable and Deus Ex. Starburst intercepted this very busy writer to quiz him about his diverse career.

Starburst: What was it like to work on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, especially as it may eventually get made into a movie?

Jim Swallow: Obviously very thrilled, it’s very strong universe, we’ve got some very compelling characters. The original work was an extremely strong foundation to work from. I definitely think there’s enough narrative juice to get a movie out of it. Video game movies have not always been well received, and that’s the kind of shadow that hangs over it. I’m hoping that whoever takes on Deus Ex as a director and whoever they get to write can take it to where it needs to go. Certainly it’s my understanding that the production team have been working very, very closely with Eidos to make it so Deus Ex the movie feels like Deus Ex the video game.

How does it feel to have someone else work on something you’ve created?

It’s always kind of scary. I worked on Deus Ex for four year, and that's a lot of energy to put into one project; longer than writing a book or feature film. Working with friends and colleagues, we sweated blood to make that story live and breathe. On the other hand, I’ve made my peace that it’s going to be what it is. A feature film has different needs from the way you to tell a story in a game, so obviously it’s going to be different, I just hope it’s a good movie. I’m quietly confident, I want it to be good and the people making it feel the same way. Bear in mind that just because they’ve taken on the rights, it could be a long time before the movie comes out, the original game was optioned for a film and that was never made.

Tell us about the key differences between writing for game, novel or audio play.

At the end of the day, it’s all writing, and the skills transfer from one medium to the other. The needs for a video game are very different than those for a novel. A novel is a more static way of telling a story, you create a narrative and deliver that story to the reader who interprets it on their own terms, whereas with video games you have to leave the story laying around for them to find it because a game is more about you interacting within the narrative, not just having someone talking to you, otherwise it’s not fun. You have to have a different mindset for each type of format.

The Horus Heresy novel Fear to Tread come out recently, and features the iconic Blood Angels. What was it like working with those characters?

The thing about the Blood Angels that attracted me to them is two-fold. On the one hand I love the inherent nobility these guys have; their warrior ethic is very compelling. Their greatest gift, which is their martial strength, is also their greatest curse because of the berserker fury that overcomes them in the worst stages of battle, and this instantly creates conflict and character. There is less of that in Fear to Tread as it's set in the Horus Heresy era, and I’ve gotten to lay the pipe as to how the curse comes about. One of the things about the series is getting to set up the dominos for the things we know are coming. One of the fun things about the Horus Heresy is that the fans already know how it is going to end and the interesting thing is telling the story as to how we get there. The Blood Angels are great group of guys to write because they have such passion and are so dynamic, and I had an absolute blast writing it. It’s the longest book I’ve written for the Black Library and I feel like I bled for every page of it, but I am immensely proud of it.

Is there a particular 40K project you’d love to do?

All the stuff that I’ve wanted to do I’ve gotten to do, and I have some projects lined up. I will definitely be writing some more Blood Angels stuff and I’d like to write some more stories about the Sisters of Battle. I’ve got two audios coming out soon, called Sword of Truth and Burden of Duty as well.

You’ve written for the Star Trek franchise is the past. Is there any Star Trek script that you wish you had written?

It’s a hard one to answer because if I’d written it wouldn’t be the thing that I liked. I wouldn’t look at a script and say “I wish I wrote that”, I look at a script and go “Wow, that’s a fantastic piece of work, hats off to whoever did that”. There are so many great episodes of Trek, I’m a dyed in the wool fan of that series, and it’s very hard to narrow it down. I loved Mirror Mirror, Balance of Terror, The Enterprise Incident, those are some of my favourite stories. Turnabout Intruder has some brilliant ham acting from Shatner. The Next Generation has some brilliant episodes; Measure of a Man by Melinda Snodgrass is a excellent episode, really speaks to the heart of what Star Trek is about. One of my very favourite is Brannon Braga’s Frame of Mind where Riker wakes up in a mental institution. So many great episodes of DS9; Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night is fantastic and as for Voyager there are shows like Real Life and Scorpion. I could go on and on.

Is there a particular tie-in franchise that you haven’t written that you’d love to write for?

One of the great thing about being somebody who’s a fan who’s gone on to be a professional writer is that it feel like I’m giving back for all the the enjoyment that universe has given me. I would absolutely love to do a Star Wars novel and I’ve been knocking on that door for a couple of years now. I’d love to do a James Bond novel, that would be very, very cool though I don’t I’ll ever get picked to do that. If I had to pick, I’d say Star Wars, James Bond or maybe the Indiana Jones franchises, I’d love to do a story in anyone of those.

What is the difference between writing for Stargate SG1 and Stargate Atlantis?

Tone wise, they’re both action adventure science fiction shows. What makes it interesting and different is the characters; the chemistry is different and that’s what makes them fun to write in different way. For Atlantis, Rodney McKay is such fun to write, I like writing for Rodney. For SG1, Jack ONeil is a lot of fun, especially as he and Daniel Jackson have such a nice rapport. Daniel and Valla is also a joy to write for.

Who would win; The Doctor or The Emperor?

I don’t know if those two guys would even fight, though I don’t think the Doctor would think much of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. If you’re talking about the Horus Heresy, I think they’d be a lot more evenly matched as The Emperor is the most powerful psychic that ever lived whereas The Doctor is just a guy from Gallifrey.

Truth or Beauty

Truth. That’s the writers job, find truth in everything.

Simpsons or Futurama?


Tom Baker or Matt Smith?

Slyvester McCoy.

Video Games or Traditional Games?

I like both of those equally. I’m a hardcore old school gamer from way back. I was watching Will Wheaton on Geek and Sundry and it got me back into it. I love video games and play a lot of them, though there’s a different kind of energy in the room when you’re playing a tabletop game.

Fear To Tread was recently released in paperback by The Black Library. Read our review of HERE.

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